While a possible return of football at East Tennessee State took the spotlight, the future of basketball at the university was also noted prominently in the athletics task force report released Wednesday.
The 15-member panel, working under the umbrella of the Committee for 125 and chaired by Greene County judge Ken Bailey, included among its recommendations:
— Develop a new multi-purpose facility for basketball that will accommodate other activities and events;
— Enhance and raise the level of basketball to a championship caliber program and clearly focus on basketball to strengthen the brand.
University president Brian Noland says basketball, his flagship sport, could potentially work hand in hand with football to enhance the overall athletic department.
“The two are of extreme importance,” Noland said Thursday. “We all know the interest in college football, and there is a lot of potential for us in basketball. There’s a lot of hype and hoopla about mid-major programs. People who follow college basketball talk about George Mason’s Cinderella run, VCU and Butler. The thing I like to remind people of is ETSU was Butler before Butler was Butler.”
The Bucs, of course, didn’t make a run to the Final Four, as Butler did in back-to-back years. But they were a mid-major that gained some renown as a tough out during a four-year stretch of NCAA tournament appearances in the early 1990s.
The 44-year-old Noland has been catching up on a lot of school history in his nearly 11 months on the job. He envisions a new heyday for ETSU athletics and thinks the visionary work of the task force over the last three months is a valuable roadmap.
“All this begins and ends with student and community engagement,” said Noland. “Most can remember when 12,000 fans were in the Dome for football and basketball, and ETSU was the talk of the town — not only the talk of the town but of the region.
“Through implementation of these recommendations, East Tennessee State University will be the force that drives Northeast Tennessee. We serve the region. We’re the backbone of the region from a cultural and economic perspective. What I took from Judge Bailey’s excellent report and the fine work of his committees was that we have the potential to be much more in the future.”
A detailed report on the Committee for 125’s work can be found at etsu.edu/125.
While there are hopes a new basketball arena can be built in the next few years, ETSU has been busy lately making improvements to the 35-year-old Dome. A slick new enclosed practice facility has recently been finished, and a new lighting grid that will hang over the center court is due to be installed later this month.
“When fans come to the VCU game (on Jan. 2), the experience is going to look very different,” said Noland. “We’ve made some strategic decisions short-term to improve existing facilities and give coach (Murry) Bartow some tools to take on the recruiting trail.
“Long-term, there are some other issues we must look at. We’ve got to improve facilities in order to be competitive.”
ETSU officials have reportedly been talking quietly to the Southern Conference for at least the last year about possibly reconnecting. The Bucs called the SoCon home for 25 years, until leaving in 2005 for the Atlantic Sun.
College of Charleston recently voted to move to the Colonial Athletic Association. Appalachian State is looking around after committing to play FBS football. Rumors are also circulating about Georgia Southern, Furman and Elon.
Noland said conference affiliation will fall into line at the proper time.
“I cannot comment on the conference landscape other than to say I’m watching it very closely, and I have been from the moment I arrived,” said Noland. “The situation is obviously very fluid right now across the country. It will eventually settle at the mid-major level, where East Tennesssee State University is positioned. If there is a chance for us to advance, we are prepared to take advantage of opportunities.
“Until then, we want to win as many A-Sun championships as we possibly can.”